Stanley Cup playoffs: History repeats itself, kind of

On July 7, the Tampa Bay Lightning once again won the Stanley Cup for the second time in two consecutive years. Unlike in other professional sports such as football, basketball or even baseball, winning back to back championships is much more difficult in hockey.

With a slew of highly competitive teams still in successful eras of their own thanks to some of the most talented players in the league’s history, there are only a handful of organizations who have been lucky enough to win The Cup multiple times in a row. The last to do so was the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017, who became the first consecutive winners in over twenty years.

However, the Lightning’s feat seems to be viewed as less impressive and not as exciting in comparison. And rightfully so. 

For hockey fans, the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year looked very familiar for a multitude of reasons. Several teams exited at the same round as in the past and many of the matchups in certain divisions were carbon copies from the awkwardly paused 2020 season which led to the playoffs being held in the bubble. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its disruption to the NHL’s last two regular seasons, the 2020-21 season was shortened to a total of 52 games and the divisions were rearranged to ensure less travel and more safety precautions in mind for the teams. 

Arguably, this is what allowed Tampa Bay to win back to back.

In a normal season, eight teams from each conference (East and West) qualify for the playoffs. From there, the top three divisional qualifiers play the three wild card teams and the first and last seeded teams play against each other. In a best of seven series, the teams who win advance to the second round, then the conference finals and if they are lucky enough, the Stanley Cup Finals. However, with the changed format this year, the divisions were realigned so the top four teams of each division made the playoffs. The matchups resulted in one team winning their division and then playing against the other to advance to the Finals.

This year, the final four teams were the Montreal Canadiens, the Vegas Golden Knights, the New York Islanders and, of course, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Not even a year prior, when the NHL was finishing off their last season in the bubble located in Canada due to the pandemic, three of the four same teams were competing for a spot in the Finals. 

Talk about deja vu.

And you may be thinking it’s impressive to see almost an exact repeat of the previous year’s playoffs, those teams have worked hard to get there. They certainly have, but nothing about the 2020-21 playoffs was really new or surprising. In fact, besides the consecutive Cup win, a handful of teams relived their own history this season as well. 

Led by perennial Hart Trophy finalist Nathan MacKinnon, the Colorado Avalanche, both a Cup favorite and President’s Trophy winner, saw their third consecutive loss in the second round to the Golden Knights once again. The New York Islanders, who battled through most of the season in the toughest division without their captain, lost to the Lightning in the semi-finals for the second year in a row. 

Despite having one of the NHL’s star players on their roster, the Edmonton Oilers failed to advance past the first round, extending their Stanley Cup Finals drought even further. And the Pittsburgh Penguins, who won their division thanks to their core of veteran players, were eliminated in the first round as well, bringing their season to an early halt for the third consecutive year, twice at the hands of the Islanders. 

As the playoffs wore on, many were met with disappointment as their favorite teams lost another chance at The Cup and it became more and more obvious the Finals would be a lackluster ordeal for the first time in a while. The Montreal Canadiens, the only real surprise of this season and the one of the biggest underdog stories in the sport’s recent history, were the challengers of the defending champs. Practically everyone, minus Tampa fans, rallied behind them and watched as the series unfolded over the course of approximately a week.

At the end of it all, the Lightning became Stanley Cup champions once again.

So history did repeat itself, kind of.

Yes, the Lightning brought The Cup back to Tampa Bay for the second time in under nine months due to the irregular schedule and seasons. But this back to back win does not have the same excitement or is as remarkable as when the Penguins did the same only a few years prior. First off, both seasons that the Lightning have won in were shortened due to the pandemic giving the team less regular season games to compete in. The level of intensity for said games were not equal to a normal season either because the divisions were realigned which allowed more skilled teams to play against weaker ones, leading to easy wins. 

So the back to back wins are somewhat impressive in their own way, but arguably not on the same level as the teams who have reached the same accomplishments in the past. To the Lightning’s credit, the Final against the Canadiens was very different from the Final against the Dallas Stars during the previous season. The 2020 matchup was an exciting series that could have gone either way as the winner was not decided until Game Six. This year, the defending champs almost swept Montreal, but because they won a single game in the series, the winner was decided in five games instead.

And unlike the Penguins, two different players won the Conn Smythe trophy each year. The award is given to the the Most Valuable Player on the winning team and this season, Andrei Vasilevisky, Tampa’s star goaltender, earned the honor. The previous year, Nikita Kucherov was awarded the trophy which is a stark difference from Pittsburgh’s back to back wins when captain Sidney Crosby was named the Conn Smythe winner for his efforts in the team’s success both years.

Needless to say, the two-time defending champs are the center of a lot of discussion surrounding their wins and how they accomplished the rarity. Now the question is if the Lightning will make it three wins in a row, something that hasn’t been done since the 1980s New York Islanders in their dynasty years. With a crazy offseason that’s undoubtedly going to be full of surprising trades and moves thanks to the Seattle expansion, only time will tell if the Tampa Bay Lightning will secure another Stanley Cup champion title for the third year.